The Canon 200-400 f/4 L IS 1.4x is, without a doubt, the most anticipated piece of glass to ever come out of the Canon factory. Through a combination of factors; lack of a competitor to Nikon’s 200-400 in the lineup and a very early development announcement of this lens, photographers everywhere have itched to get their hands on one.
As soon as the official announcement was made I was on the phone with my local camera store arranging to get one as soon as they came into Canada. The first Canadian shipment contained just 7 lenses and I missed out on that one, but just a couple of weeks later another small batch came in and I was assigned my lens. This was some time ago, and I deliberately held off from publishing my review until I really felt like I had put it through its paces.
That’s something that I really want to abide by here on Shutter Muse, I don’t crank out reviews as fast as possible based solely on test charts and studio scenes. These are reviews compiled after extensive real-world testing across a range of shooting situations.
This lens in particular suits a wide range of shooting scenarios so I wanted to make sure that I had ample time to test it for sports, airshow and wildlife photography; the three scenarios where I saw the potential for this to be an excellent lens choice. Without a doubt, the most popular usage for this lens will be wildlife photography so much of this review is illustrated by some recent images from a trip to Vancouver Island to shoot black bears during the autumn salmon run.
- Focal Length – 200-400mm (560 with built-in extender)
- Weight – 7.98 lb (3.62 kg)
- Dimensions: Approx. 5.04 x 14.41″ (128.02 x 366.01 mm)
- Magnification: 0.15x
- Minimum focus distance: 6.56′ (2.00 m)
- Diaphragm blades: 9
- Aperture: Max f/4 , Min f/32
Built in 1.4x extender
While a built-in extender is new in photographic lenses, they have been used for a long time in ENG or “newsgathering” lenses in the television world. It’s a wonder it’s taken someone so long to take this idea to the stills world, but it makes sense that Canon did since they are making ENG lenses for TV cameras as well, and I’m sure they borrowed some knowledge from that department.
The main benefit of having the extender be part of the lens is that each one is optically matched to the rest of the lens. In essence, they are designed as one whereas normally you would buy a separate extender from a store that needs to work with all suitable lenses. The result, in theory, is a much sharper pairing than you would normally get when using a regular extender.
As you can see in the images, the bulge on the side of the lens is quite noticeable, though it doesn’t impede the handling at all in the field. The switch to engage the extender is large and easy to use with gloves on which is good for cold weather shooting. Flicking the switch is a smooth, positive action that results in a small “clunk” as the glass element seats itself in the barrel. There’s also a lock switch next to it that you can engage to either prevent it from going into 1.4x mode or keep it there.
The extender proved to work very well. I have used all manner of super-telephoto lenses in the past with 1.4x extenders, so I’m very familiar with typical results. I would say that this performs better, but only by a very slight margin. There’s a slight amount of IQ reduction with the extender engaged and whilst it’s definitely possible to tell images apart (those with and without extender), it’s only really possible once you see the images side-by-side.
I tested myself blind and was caught out several times thinking the image did not have the extender engaged when in fact it did, so that’s a good sign. I’d say that it’s more noticeable in certain lighting situations and micro-contrast is the area that gets weakened. I did not see any major vignetting or chromatic aberration caused by the extender, even when shooting wide open at f/5.6 which is where I shot most of my “extender engaged” images. I think that’s where a lot of wildlife images will be shot, but if you stop down to f/8 then there is a small increase in contrast.
We can talk about “a little this” and “a small amount of that” until the cows come home but all you really need to do is take a look at the image below. Yes, this is one of the images that caught me out when I did my blind testing. I had to check and double-check again when I saw the EXIF said 560mm f/5.6. Just stunning.
The most noticeable difference to me was the AI Servo tracking accuracy. I noticed immediately that there was some degradation in AF speed and accuracy with the extender engaged. Not so much that it would be problematic, and this is always expected when a lens becomes a native f/5.6 instead of /f4. Less light=slower AF. It’s worth remembering this though and it’s for this reason that this lens isn’t going to replace the 400mm f2.8 for full-time sports photographers.
It’s all about the flexibility
Let’s take a look at some specific examples from my recent bear trip to Vancouver Island, particularly concentrating on the ability to capture many different images of one subject very quickly. This is really where this lens sets itself apart from anything else because whilst Nikon shooters have enjoyed their 200-400 for many years now, they’ve always had to remove the camera from the lens to add an extender if they wanted to. Most animals don’t sit still for too long (yes I know there are several images of bears sitting down in this review but trust me they didn’t stay there long), and so taking that extra time to put on the extender can easily make the difference between getting the shot and not.
Here’s a shot of a bear at 200mm. A nice shot to show the bear in his habitat of British Columbia’s West Coast.
Now here’s a shot of the bear at 400mm.
And finally a shot at 560mm by flicking the “awesome switch” as I might start to call it.
All of these shots are perfectly useable, but all of them are very different, and yet they were all captured within just a few seconds of each other. You can tell because the bear hasn’t changed position at all. If I had stood in the same spot with a 500mm or a 600mm lens I would just have the one type of shot unless I was carrying a second camera with another lens attached. Something which nobody wants to do if you’re already carrying a super tele lens on a tripod over your other shoulder!
Personally, I’m always a big fan of giving my subject some space around them to show their place on this earth. I gravitate to this style of shot all the time because I tend to like people to imagine themselves in the same place I was when I took the shot. That’s not really possible when the subject is filling the frame. Don’t get me wrong, there’s always a use for that style of image as well, and particularly if you are working for a magazine it’s good to give them options, but my preference tends towards the wider shots.
This lens allows me to get all the options and do it quickly without fuss. It also allows you to be a little more creative with your compositions since you aren’t forced into one field of view. With a long prime lens, and particularly with sports and wildlife, you can’t always choose where you want to stand. By the time You’ve repositioned yourself the moment has gone, but at least with a zoom you have some instant ability to explore some compositional variations to make up for any shortcomings in your positions at that time. In other words, you’ll find yourself using things like 337mm or 248mm, not just 200mm, 400mm and 560mm.
Using an additional 1.4x extender
It is possible to add a 1.4x extender to the Canon 200-400 and use this in conjunction with the built-in extender. This yields a 784mm f/8 lens. As a lens with a native f/8 maximum aperture, some of Canon’s DSLR cameras will not give you access to all focus points. In fact, some of the older ones might not give you any autofocus capabilities. Refer to this article to find out how your camera will perform with a max f/8 aperture.
I was very curious to see whether this combination would yield useful results! Renowned avian photographer Art Morris was saying some very good things about this and since I already owned a 1.4x III extender it was an easy test. I settled on shooting bald eagles in the Squamish Valley at the end of the salmon run. After the salmon have spawned they die and their carcasses are washed to the mouth of the river where the eagles gather for an annual feast. In this particular area, the eagles are extremely timid though and so a long reach is a must if you are to capture good photos. 784mm should do the trick!
Once again I really just want to let the images do the talking for the most part. I was floored when I saw the quality that I was able to get when my own long lens techniques were on point (sharp images become exponentially harder as your lens gets longer). The focus on static subjects was accurate and fast, and even AI Servo was useable for birds in flight. Something I really wasn’t expecting.
All the time this was on the 5D Mark III, the EOS-1D X would likely have been even better. It was noticeably slower than using it without the added external extender, but that’s to be expected of course. The biggest struggle with moving subjects and this combination was the limitation to the central AF points. It means you really can’t get an ideal composition unless you plan on cropping the image afterwards. With static subjects though I was just amazed at the sharpness of the images even wide open at f/8. Stop down to f/10 or f/12 and there was a small increase in detail but in all honesty, larger changes can come from poor lens technique at this point.
I didn’t shy away from shooting wide open which was another huge surprise to me. Instantly I have gone from not bothering to bring an extender with me when I use this lens, to taking one every single time. I know I have harped on and on about flexibility with this lens but it simply can’t be underlined enough. Knowing now that I can add this extra extender and get useable results means a 200-784mm lens in my bag and that means I can be prepared for just about anything!
Should you look at this as a replacement to an 800mm? No, you shouldn’t. The IQ difference between the Canon EF 800mm f/5.6 and this lens at 784mm is pretty big, and the limitation to central AF points is a definite consideration. If you were thinking about buying an 800mm then this won’t replace it, but what it might do is ease the concerns of some folks who are weighing up the 200-400 vs either the 500mm or the 600mm.
Certainly for wildlife, once again, this lens has proven to me that it’s worth every penny and it makes it a useable lens for avian photography, which typically needs longer lengths due to the smaller size of the subjects. I was quite happy to mount the external extender on the lens and shoot all day flicking the internal extender on and off at will to go from 560mm to 784mm.
Not just for wildlife
As I mentioned, this post is pretty heavy on the wildlife images because I think that will be the main use for it. There are however plenty of other uses for it and one of those is airshow and aircraft photography. The most popular Canon lenses for this type of photography are the 100-400 and the 500mm.
I took the lens out to the Abbotsford Airshow this summer to test it out and I found it to perform admirably. With single planes flying around, 400mm or 560mm proved to be about right in most cases, but with formation flying it was great to be able to zoom out a bit. Again the flexibility proved worthwhile, able to capture a full formation of 10 aircraft at 200mm or 300mm followed quickly by a tighter shot of pairs of aircraft as they pulled off to fly their synchronised routines.
The main issue with using such a big lens for aircraft was that you really want to try to keep it on a gimbal (see next section), but then the aircraft fly directly overhead you can’t really pan up like that. I ended up mixing it up between gimbal, monopod and hand-held and I can’t say I really figured out the best solution. Hand holding was probably the most successful, but some people may not find that possible.
Accessories for the Canon 200-400
There are a couple of things that I consider to be must-have accessories for this lens. Firstly, you are going to need to use some sort of gimbal head if you are doing serious wildlife photography with it. It’s possible to hand-hold the lens for a short while but in the low light of dusk and dawn, this will really hurt your keeper rate when those shutter speeds are low.
Using this lens on my Really Right Stuff PG-02 gimbal I was able to get consistently sharp images of the Vancouver Island bears at 560mm, and shutter speeds less than 1/100 second. This kept my ISO down at a very useable 3200 for the most part, even with the dense West Coast rainforest surrounding me at times.
The second thing I would consider to be necessary is a rain jacket for the lens. You never know what kind of weather you’ll have to endure, and while I typically find that I don’t use covers a lot, those few times I do need them, they’re worth their weight in gold. Especially when you’re protecting a $12,000 lens! My preference is the Think Tank Hydrophobia 300-600 V3. I like the seam-sealed zippers, the included front lens cap and the double tight straps at the front to hold it on. A cover like this can also be very useful in a sandy or dusty environment. With a zoom ring on this lens, you do have to try not to get too much sand and grit in there, something that’s not normally a concern with super-telephoto prime lenses.
For my lens, I also have a LensCoat lens cover and a TravelCoat. The TravelCoat is just a neoprene sleeve that I put around the lens when I put it into my backpack and the lens cover is a segmented cover designed to stay on the lens most of the time. I don’t really buy into the camouflage idea that it will stop your subject from getting spooked by your lens, but I do believe it prevents excess damage when lying in the dirt which could otherwise detract considerably from the re-sale value.
Other Lens Alternatives
No purchase of this size can be carried out before thoroughly weighing up the alternatives. For the wildlife shooters out there the alternatives are more than likely the Canon 500mm f4/4 L II and the Canon 600mm f/4 L II with a smattering of folks looking at the 300mm and converters. It used to be the case that the 500mm f/4 was the standard choice for wildlife because if necessary you could still use it handheld where the 600mm was too cumbersome.
When Canon released version II of their super-telephoto lenses though they shaved an incredible amount of weight off them, to the point where the new 600mm is roughly equal in weight to the old 500mm. I’ve definitely seen more than a couple of folks switch to the 600m now because of this. In terms of bulk and weight, the Canon 200-400 sits squarely between the 500 and the 600 in terms of weight. 7.98lbs for the 200-400, 7.04lbs for the 500mm and 8.65lbs for the new 600mm. It’s a heavy lens, of that there is no doubt, but it’s not so much heavier than the 500mm II that I would say that should be a deciding factor in a decision. Neither is it that much lighter than the 600 that this would be a factor. In reality, they are all capable of short periods of hand-held shooting but are all going to need a tripod and gimbal for extended periods.
An area that might make some difference is the length and girth of the lens. The 500 and the 200-400 are very similar, only about 15mm difference in length, but the 600 ads about another 60mm on the end and quite a bit more girth. The result is that travelling with the 600mm lens needs a much larger bag. For example, the 600mm will not fit in the Gura Gear Battaflae 26L, you need to step up to the 32L. The same goes for several other bag manufacturers like Think Tank as well, the 600mm will require something larger to put it in even though the weight difference is relatively minor. For me, this is a big win for the smaller two lenses, but I’m a big fan of packing light and not being encumbered by your gear. Your mileage may vary on that point.
If we’re just considering focal lengths then the 500 and 600 options have the upper hand with both being able to take 1.4x extenders and produce excellent 700mm and 840mm options. Whether you really need those sorts of lengths will depend on your subject. For sports, I don’t think it’s necessary but for wildlife, It may well be depending on where you are shooting. In Botswana for example a 200-400 is a great option, whereas in Kenya things can be a little further away and need something more in the 600-700 range. Of course, this just takes into consideration ultimate reach and not the flexibility provided by the 200-400 zoom which for me outweighs most if not all the negatives of a slightly shorter maximum range.
Price-wise there isn’t a lot to choose from between them. At time of writing the 500 is $10,200, the 200-400 is $11,900 and the 600mm is $12,800. In reality, they are all bloody big numbers and if you’re considering a lens in this sort of price bracket an extra $1000 up or down likely isn’t the main factor for you. A 300mm f2.8 L II with both 1.4x and 2x extenders is going to give you some decent results as well, and at $6700 it’s a much cheaper option, but for more than only occasional usage with wildlife, I wouldn’t really recommend it unless you are using it alongside a 600mm or an 800mm as a second lens in which case it makes a nice partner and is blisteringly sharp at 300mm!
There’s no doubt in my mind that this is Canon’s greatest ever achievement in their lens lineup; an optical masterpiece. Over the last five years, we’ve seen them work on an increasingly impressive range of zoom lenses that challenge the popular thought that primes rule all else. This is no longer the case. My day-to-day grab bag for photography now features the 8-15mm f/4 L fisheye zoom, the HIGHLY underrated 70-300 f/4-5.6 L IS, the new 24-70 f2.8 L II and the 200-400 f4 L IS. All zoom lenses.
The 200-400 is just the icing on the cake though, and I’ve no qualms about declaring it the best wildlife photography lens on the market, from any manufacturer. Canon lost a few wildlife shooters due to their lack of a 200-400 in the lineup but I dare say they’re going to gain a few back again with this lens. It would be a good enough lens if it was just a 200-400 but the inclusion of the 1.4x extender elevates its versatility to a whole other level. It should almost be referred to as the Canon 200-560 because there’s little reason to not make use of the extender. The difference between an image at 200mm and 560mm is vast and the ability to grab those two shots just a second apart means that you come back from your wildlife trip, or your sporting assignment with a much wider array of photos.
For many, the question is going to be “Is it worth the money?”. For professional Canon wildlife photographers, yes, it’s absolutely worth it. I don’t take these sums of money lightly, and I’ve rarely, if ever, been so direct with my response to such a question. You can spend many thousands of dollars getting to a location and waiting for your subject. Coming away from an encounter with a wider range of images is only going to increase your sales and give your clients a choice of images.
Not only do you get that range of images from the tight portrait to the wider, scenic, animal-in-landscape shot; you also get some creative freedom for framing all those images instead of being forced into a composition with a 500 or 600mm prime. Sometimes with wildlife and sports, you don’t get to choose exactly where you want to stand so the zoom range gives you some freedom to create a more pleasing composition. If you aren’t a professional who’s making money from their images then it’s unlikely you’ll be considering this lens. If you are lucky enough to have this kind of money at your disposal, to spend on your pastime, then you simply won’t be disappointed. As I said in the unboxing video, I think every photography fan should experience the excitement of unwrapping a super-telephoto lens at some point in their life.
What about sports photography though? I know that I concentrated heavily on wildlife in this review but I know that a lot of sports photographers will be considering this lens as well. Just a few years ago it would be unthinkable to approach a sporting event professionally with an f/4 lens, but times have changed and cameras like the 1D-X deliver high ISO results that more than compensate for the stop of light that this loses over something the Canon 400mm f2.8 L II.
My thoughts are that if you are primarily shooting sports then the 400mm prime lens is likely to still be your workhorse. If your work takes on a broader range of subjects, more photojournalistic, then the Canon 200-400 is a perfect partner to the venerable 70-200. Many people follow me because of my winter sports work and for this as well the Canon 200-400 is the new king as far as I’m concerned. It’s long enough for me to shoot big mountain skiing in Alaska, and versatile enough that I can just pack a 24-70 alongside it and be good for a day in the mountains. For major sporting event coverage like the Olympics, this would be the lens I want in my hand, paired with a 600mm f/4.
If a $12,000 lens is never going to be an option for you then don’t forget that you can always rent it for your once-in-a-lifetime wildlife safari from LensRentals.